Monday, June 27, 2011

Bears Out There

Folks in my neck of the woods are all a-twitter these days. Seems that there has been a confirmed sighting of a black bear just seven or eight miles south of us. Some hikers at the metro park saw a bear one morning. Later in the day a couple near the park saw a bear in their back yard and called 911. Several days later some folks actually got photos of the bear, presumably a cub, something the "officials" just can't refute.

I feel vindicated by this information. Why? Well, five years ago, in October 2006, I was hiking in the Brighton Recreation Area, a 4,900 acre park that has 13 lakes and miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. This land, while not actually connected, is very near the 11,000 acre Pinckney Rec Area, which is connected by a trail to the 21,000 acre Waterloo Rec Area.

I was on a section of trail in the Brighton Rec Area that is for hiking only when I came across this in the middle of the path:

Now that's a big pile of poo. While I was merely a budding artist/naturalist at the time (still am, really) I knew that this was not made by a dog. Not only was it huge (my lens cap is two inches across) it was full of undigested apple peels. There are no horses allowed on this trail (and indeed no hoof prints) and canines are mainly carnivores. This was made by a large animal that is primarily vegetarian.

About a hundred feet farther down the trail I saw this:

The first thing I did was look around, because I was now even more certain that a bear had passed through there. I took several shots of the tracks, then backtracked to look for others, but I could not find any that were more defined, although I did find more tracks.

I showed these photos to several people, one of whom is a biologist. None of them thought it was a bear. The biologist, when she saw them, studied them for quite some time then asked if a bear had ever been seen in the area. I said not to my knowledge, so she said then it probably wasn't a bear. !?!?!

There are certainly a lot of dogs on the trail, and there are coyote too. But the size of this track, along with the configuration of the toes, all pointed to a black bear.

Let's take a look at some other tracks.

The year before Lisa and I had been up in the northern Lower Peninsula, in the Clear Lake State Park area, looking for elk. Driving the back roads after a rain I spotted tracks in the soft mud along the edge. I hopped out and took some pictures of these gorgeous black bear prints. If I'd had plaster I would have cast them.

Note how the toes of the front foot, which is in the top left corner, are all above the pad. Bears have five toes on the front and the back but you can only see four--the rear foot overlaps the front slightly, obscuring the fifth toe of the front foot.

Here is an illustration of a black bear's front paw:

Here is a canine print, this one of a wolf that we saw up in Ontario last year:

Here is an illustration of a wolf track:

All canines have a similar look. The configuration of the foot is totally different from that of a bear. The middle two toes are way out front, giving the track a more circular appearance.

Now look again at the track from Brighton, where I've highlighted the shape.

Unfortunately when I took this shot I did not know, and did not notice, that the rear paw overlaps the front, but luckily I got it in the shot by accident. There's no doubt in my mind that this is not a canine track. Not even a St. Bernard would make a track like that.

So after drawing on this image I got an idea to overlay the Brighton track on top of the Clear Lake track. Holy Cow!

So there is little doubt in my mind that what I photographed in the Brighton Rec Area five years ago were bear tracks and scat. The confirmed sighting only validates it for me. Reports state that it was a cub. If there's a cub, then there's a sow. And if there is a sow making cubs, she can't do it without a boar, so I guess there are at least three bears out there.

None of this surprises me. For as built up as it is in southeast Michigan we do have a lot of undeveloped state land. Add to that the MetroParks system and all of the ranches, crop land and marshes we have here, I am surprised we have not had a confirmed sighting earlier. A bear--or many bears--could live here quite comfortably and never be seen if they were careful.

Let's hope that people here in southern Michigan will not overreact and panic. Let's hope that folks here will welcome the return of the black bear, a big furry omnivore who is not a threat to us as long as we act with common sense and educate ourselves about bears. I for one am thrilled. I only wish I'd seen the creature who made this track five years ago.

Perhaps I will yet.


  1. In my area of the world we have more bears than you can shake a stick at. As an ecologist, and someone who has ample experience with bruins, I can tell you that your reasoning, description, and identification of the bear tracks is correct. It's not a particularly large bear judging from the footprint size, close to average I would say.

    As you point out, there is no reason to overreact to bears. As long as people don't feed them they will keep their distance, and when encountered in the forest they will avoid people at all costs. In fact we should all look forward to discovering bears in the woods. It is a wonderful and exciting find!

    Great post!

  2. Thanks Bill! I was always pretty sure this was a black bear but gave up trying to convince anyone. I'm glad I revisited it, looked at it more closely.

    We also had an incident a few years ago in our back yard. We came home after dark and I went to bring the bird feeders in, something we did to keep the racoons from eating everything. The shepherd's pole by Lori's studio was bent, near the top, to about 45 or 50 degrees. We didn't find any other sign, and our dogs did not act like there was anything special to smell around the feeder, but we think it may have been a bear--either that or a really BIG raccoon!

  3. Hi Marie! How fortunate you are to have black bears returned! Here in Indiana if one showed up I fear someone would rush to shoot it--just to say they did. So glad I found your blog-- I remember your work from Whisper in the Woods. I live in Indiana and enjoy reading fellow nature bloggers from the Midwest.

  4. ...really interesting post, Marie! Great eye...